Neil Young was born in Toronto, Canada on November 12, 1945. By the time he settled in Los Angeles in 1966 he had been performed as both an acoustic folkie and a grungy guitar rocker, so he was primed and ready for his roles as a solo artist as well as the pioneering Buffalo Springfield, garage band Crazy Horse and supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash.
To celebrate Neil’s birthday today, here are some excerpts from a 2005 interview by Russell Hall for Performing Songwriter, as well as some late ‘60s/early ‘70s photos by Henry Diltz that appeared in the article along with Henry’s classic stories behind them. Enjoy!
You’ve said in the past that being creative is about knowing when you’re tapped into something—realizing that you’re tapped into a channel—and not getting in the way of that. How do you know when that’s the case?
You know because you’re writing. You’re not editing. Editing is no good. If you’re really writing, you just write—write it down and let it come out. Also, the thing is, if you write a song, and you don’t record it right away, then you’ve got to carry it around with you. Who wants to carry it around? You’ve got to get it out and get it down while it’s fresh and brand new. So that’s what I try to do. As soon as I get one down, then I’m wide open, and another one’s going to come. It’s like trying to catch a wild animal or something. You’ve got to sneak up on it, and not make any fast moves. You just make sure you’re cool, and wait, and it will come to you. You’ve got to be ready, and you can’t have any other things in your way. That’s why as soon as you write a song you’ve got to record it.
There have been several instances where, if you had elected to, you could have capitalized more strongly on something you’ve done. Harvest is the obvious example, and Rust Never Sleeps, to a certain extent. In both instances you chose to go a different route in the wake of those successes. Does that have to do with having mixed feelings about getting trapped in that kind of success?
Well, I think that you just can’t be conscious of where you are, to the point where you’re trying to be there. If you’ve done something, and it’s really successful, that’s great, but it’s no reason to try to do it again. When you’re doing something over and over again, you’re not being original if you’re consciously trying to repeat it. That’s not to say that you can’t get on a roll, where you’ve got a certain group of instruments, and a certain sound, and a certain location, and a certain group of people, and you do a whole group of songs in that vein. That’s great, but there comes a time when you’re finished with that, and that’s when you’re back to that place where you can either try to do what you’ve done already, because people really liked it; or you can not do anything, because you don’t feel like doing what you just did and you don’t know what to do next; or you can have a new idea and you can follow that idea, even though it may be something that makes people say, “Oh, I was hoping you wouldn’t pick up your electric guitar,” or something like that.
Does that insistence on following your own path—to the point where it clashes with what other people might have you do—have something to do with the right to fail, or the right to take chances that might not pan out?
Yeah, that’s fair. It’s more important to get down what you want than it is to succeed at it. You don’t want to fail to do something for any reason other than that you decided not to do it. If you fail to put something out there because people are telling you it’s no good, or that it won’t sell, or something like that, then you’re already listening to too many people.
Obviously the music business has changed a great deal from what it was like when you were coming up. Do you feel that it’s much more difficult now for an up-and-coming artist to insist on that sort of independence, right out of the chute?
Well, if you never give it up, then you’re never going to lose it. And if you give it away thinking you’re going to get it back, you’re nuts. So you might as well keep it right from the start. Just do what you want to do. The way to get there is not by bending. You don’t want to be who someone else thinks you should be in order to be successful. Music doesn’t work that way.
You’ve said that in order to play your old songs live you have to have new songs to play as well.
Absolutely. If I’m going to do a show, I won’t just go out and do a set of old songs. I have to have new songs, because the new songs give me a reason to be there. The new songs make me believe in myself, that I’m still doing something relevant, and that I’m expressing the way I feel today, rather than trying to recreate how I felt yesterday.
Do the songs that you think of as your best songs tend to conform to what the public at large thinks is your best work?
I don’t know. I don’t know what my best songs are. I don’t look at it that way; I just keep writing. When you start thinking about that type of thing, you start to go down the editing path, which I don’t like. I might change the tense of something—to past or to present—to match things up, but that’s pretty much the extent of any editing I do. And sometimes I’ll write the second and third verse of a song before writing the first verse. That happens. But I don’t ever go back and try to change the words to a song.
In an interview long ago you said that there was an element of danger in rock ’n’ roll music—as opposed to your acoustic work—that made it necessary to pull back from that type of music from time to time. You described it as being “on the leading edge of yourself.” Is that something you still believe?
Yes, I still agree with that. It’s hard to elaborate, but I do agree. It sounds like I was making some sense there. You’re taking chances in a different way, in a way that’s more aggressive. It’s hard to put more words on it than I did back then. I think that’s why you want to know more about it.
Because there’s a component of mystery about it?
That’s exactly what it is. It’s the unknown. And you can’t always be there. You can’t screw around with that.
Most of those albums of that type were done with Crazy Horse. A lot of young artists cite that work as a primary influence on them. Is that something that’s been surprising to you?
Yes. That’s been a pleasant circumstance, that that work has had that effect on other people. My work with Crazy Horse stands alone, in its own way. It’s a separate thing. And it’s not always there, because it can’t be. It needs to be replenished, and it needs to be revisited, and it needs to be left alone. I treat it with that kind of respect. That kind of music we were just talking about is what Crazy Horse is all about. Working with them opens the door to that. I can’t do that with anybody else. I haven’t been able to do that type of thing with anyone else. I’ve made rock ’n’ roll records with other people—I did “Rockin’ in the Free World” without them—but that’s a different kind of thing. It’s not as cosmic.
Zuma, from 1975, still sounds like one of the most inspired of those albums. That one probably deserves a better reputation than it’s gotten through the years.
That’s a good one. There’s an old theater in Taos, N.M., called the El Cortez, which an artist-friend of mine has made it into a painting studio. Someday I might go there with Crazy Horse. It’s not like I’ve totally forgotten about that, but you have to be ready. You have to be somewhere where the wide-open spaces are, in a different way, and where there are some spiritual things happening, and where cosmic connections can be made. I’ve been lucky so far.
ALL PHOTOS BY HENRY DILTZ
From Performing Songwriter Issue 90